Scott Henry/Associated Press
Ray Mancini, the W.B.A. lightweight champion, and the Korean challenger Duk-koo Kim. Proud and determined, Kim had declared ominously before their fight,
"Either he dies, or I die."
September 16, 2012
A Step Back
By MARK KRIEGEL
As a boy, Ray Mancini would pore over his father’s scrapbook, a collection of brittle-brown newspaper clippings and sepia-toned glossies, inevitably pausing to study the photograph of his father as a young fighter, his features bloodied and swollen, the right eye clenched shut like the seam of a mussel shell.
“I didn’t win ’em all,” Lenny Mancini would tell his son. “But I never took a step back.”
The elder Mancini had been a No. 1 contender in the abundantly talented lightweight division. But his dream of a title shot ended Nov. 10, 1944, near the French town of Metz, when he was hit with shrapnel from a German mortar shell.
Four decades later, his son entered the national consciousness. Ray called himself Boom Boom, too, just like the old man. But coming out of Youngstown, Ohio, at the cusp of the 1980s, Ray also represented those felled when the steel belt turned to rust. As refracted through the lens of television, he became The Last White Ethnic, a redemptive fable produced by CBS Sports.
Mancini won the lightweight title with a first-round knockout live from Vegas, the broadcast sponsored by Michelin (“the company that pioneered the radial”), Michelob (“smooth and mellow”) and the Norelco Rototract rechargeable. That was 1982. He was only 21, but already a modern allegory, as bankable as he was adored.
Then he fought Duk-koo Kim.
Kim had hit the Korean exacta at birth: dirt-poor and dark-skinned. But the prospect of a title shot seemed to ennoble him. He became fierce for the sake of his family. At the time of the Mancini fight, his fiancée was pregnant with their son.
If only Kim had taken a step back, he might have lived to see that boy.
These days, Ray is likely to be found at a trattoria in a Santa Monica strip mall. He’ll likely be joined by one of the regulars — the playwright David Mamet; the actor Ed O’Neill, an old friend from Youngstown; or maybe Ray-Ray, now 15, the youngest of Mancini’s three children.
Occasionally, patrons pull the waiter aside and point at Ray.
“What was he in?” they ask.
“That’s Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,” the waiter says. “Lightweight champion of the world.”
“He’s the guy who killed the guy, right? The Korean?”
DUK-KOO KIM was born July 29, 1955. At age 2, he survived the virus that killed his biological father. When he was not yet 5, his mother — Sun-nyo Yang, whom he’d remember as “a woman of great misfortune” — left his stepfather, a bean curd peddler whose oldest son had become violently abusive.
On the morning Sun-nyo fled with Duk-koo, she carried all their possessions on her head. Finally, at sundown, they stopped in a town 18 kilometers from the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Korea. Banam was a poor fishing village. But to Sun-nyo and her children, the townsfolk must have seemed well off. “I was not embarrassed when I saw my mother begging for food because I was so hungry,” Duk-koo wrote.
It was in Banam that Sun-nyo met her last husband. His name was Kim, the most common of Korean surnames. He was a farmer and a fisherman, with a small patch for rice and an old boat he would take out into the East Sea for mackerel, cuttlefish and octopus. Home was a block from the shore — a ramshackle house with a thatched roof and walls fashioned of mud and plywood. A partitioned cinderblock structure in the yard served as both an outhouse and a shelter for the family’s most valued possession, a cow.
Duk-koo became the youngest son in the new family. In the summer, he would swim out under a blazing red sun to catch fish and scallops. In the autumn, he’d fry locusts to eat as a snack. In the winter, with snow covering the mountain that rose behind Road No. 7, he and his brothers would corral rabbits and bludgeon them with sticks.
Elementary school was a shameful experience; his tuition was usually in arrears. “I would ask my mother for some money, and each time, she would say she didn’t have it,” Duk-koo recalled. “She would hit me every time I asked.”
He didn’t fare much better with his fellow students. Duk-koo fought often but not well. These fits of ill-temperedness would often conclude with a teacher pinning a letter to his shirt and parading him around the school.
Duk-koo later recalled in his journal: “One new brother used to drag me around forcing me to fight with other village kids. The older kids enjoyed watching our fights, and I despise them even today for it.”
He left Banam as a teenager and found his way to Seoul, where he lived under a bridge for a time and subsisted on crackers. Eventually, he held jobs as a welder and a peddler of chestnuts, pogo sticks, palm-reading manuals and ballpoint pens.
But it wasn’t until he wandered into the Dong-ah boxing gym that he found a place where he could exploit his rage and ambition. The country’s premier gym, it was run, in an iron-fisted way, by a former fighter named Hyun-chi Kim.
“I noticed he was worse off than the others,” Hyun-chi says of Duk-koo. “I didn’t think he was fighter material.”
Duk-koo’s aptitude for pugilism was not immediately apparent. He didn’t have heavy hands. He wasn’t fast, or possessed of great stamina. But Yoon-gu Kim, a welterweight, vividly recalls the first time he really hit Duk-koo. Duk-koo just smiled.
“He was more strong-willed and ruthless than others,” Yoon-gu says.
Duk-koo didn’t train so much as endure. As he wrote in his journal, “Poverty is my teacher.”
ONE FLIGHT ABOVE the Dong-ah gym was a tea company, which employed a bookkeeper named Young-mi Lee. She was pale and proper, very pretty, and very Christian. For Duk-koo, gaining her favor seemed slightly less probable than winning the championship of the world.
They bumped into each other on the stairway. Young-mi could feel his eyes on her, but she was not the least bit interested.
“My parents weren’t so ambitious as to wish to have a doctor or a lawyer as a son-in-law,” she says. “But they wanted me to marry a regular salaryman.”
Definitely not a fighter.
“I refused to see him,” Young-mi says. “I avoided him.”
But Duk-koo remained undeterred, if slightly deluded, with a talkative arrogance that belied his station in life. He spoke as if he were destined for fame and fortune, in love and boxing. He responded to Young-mi’s reticence with love letters. Good ones, too.
“They opened my heart,” she says, recalling a line from the first one she received:
...When a man cries because his heart aches, the whole world, heaven and earth, cries with him ....
Before agreeing to a date, Young-mi issued a test: “I made him pledge then and there he wouldn’t box again,” she says.
He swore he would not.
Young-mi had no intention of actually making him quit. “I could see how much he loved boxing,” she says. “It was the thought and the commitment that counted — that he could even think about quitting.”
Still, the testing wasn’t done. Young-mi’s disapproving father invited Duk-koo to the family’s home to make his case. Duk-koo told his story, as he’d written it in his journal. Young-mi’s father found Duk-koo, an avid reader of novels and histories like the Samgukji, the history of China’s three ancient kingdoms, to be surprisingly articulate.
“He was quite persuasive,” Young-mi recalls. “My father had fled from the north during the Korean War and experienced much hardship. So after hearing about the life that Kim had, he gave in.”
Korean fighters were not supposed to have girlfriends. It was considered bad form, as romance was thought to corrupt the fighting spirit. Hyun-chi Kim, the gym’s owner, considered disciplining Duk-koo when he found out about Young-mi. Just the same, neither he nor anyone else at Dong-ah could deny the strangely salutary effect the relationship had on Duk-koo.
“He was even more diligent once he got a girlfriend,” recalls Yoon-gu.
He would talk for hours with Sang-bong Lee, a featherweight whom he had befriended, arriving at a pugilistic philosophy not unlike the ancient Hwarang warriors, who eschewed the idea of retreat in battle.
“Stepping back was shameful,” Sang-bong says.
By now, several years into Duk-koo’s tenure at Dong-ah, his stablemates were having trouble reconciling the itinerant hillbilly who arrived in 1977 with the fighter now challenging for the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation title. Duk-koo was not a great fighter, but after meeting Young-mi, he became a brave one, and his unanimous decision over Kwang-min Kim on Feb. 28, 1982, made him the World Boxing Association’s No. 1 contender.
Duk-koo used the proceeds of the Kwang-min Kim fight to buy a real suit and rent a two-bedroom apartment for him and Young-mi. By the spring of 1982, the couple was discussing marriage. They had engagement parties for her family in Seoul and for his in Banam. But Duk-koo was never happier than the day he hosted a barbecue at the apartment he now shared with his fiancée.
“He was full of confidence, and so much pride,” says Seo-in Seong, another Dong-ah fighter. “He believed that the whole world was his.”
In early November, Young-mi found herself on a second-floor balcony at Kimpo International Airport. In observing that ancient Asian prohibition against fighters taking lovers, she could not be seen with Duk-koo’s modest entourage, or by the gaggle of reporters following them as they boarded their flight to the United States for the Mancini fight. Her fiancé had made news with intemperate remarks that he would beat Mancini, that only one of them would return home alive.
“Either he dies,” Duk-koo said, “or I die.”
And now Young-mi was forced to watch without saying goodbye. She could not so much as wave. Even as tears streamed down her face, the dance had begun, the ballet of blood and light in her tummy. She was pregnant with Duk-koo’s son.
ON THE NIGHT of Sunday, Nov. 6, 1982, the challenger and his handlers landed in Las Vegas. They were in awe of the wide roads and the immensity of the blinking neon Strip. Caesars casino was so bright it felt like broad daylight, its shimmer accentuated by big breasted cocktail waitresses in Roman tunics and high-piled ponytails of fake blond hair. Sudden converts to kismet, the religion of all gamblers, they went straight to the slot machines.
“This is like heaven,” Duk-koo Kim said.
Later that week, Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated met Kim in his darkened suite, the air heavy with incense. Wiley asked about the fighter’s chin, grabbing his own chin and moving his jaw from side to side.
“Kim’s expression changed,” Wiley wrote. “I would like to say he smiled, but it was something else. Scorn. He gently touched his jaw with two fingers of his right hand, then without averting his gaze, he reached over and touched the marble window sill with the same two fingers, just as gently. He turned to face the desert. The interview was over.”
In another interview, Royce Feour of The Las Vegas Review-Journal noticed the neatly lettered Korean characters on the lampshade by the fighter’s bed.
“Live or die,” he was told. Or, in the American colloquialism, “Kill or be killed.”
By midweek, the cornerman Tank DiCioccio was scouting one of Duk-koo’s workouts.
“What’s he look like?” Ray asked.
“Guy’s doing nothing but bodywork,” Tank said.
“Yeah, and ...?”
“Guy keeps coming forward.”
Mancini nodded knowingly. He’d been trying to tell the sportswriters, “We’re going to have a war, no doubt about it.” Let the rest of the world be surprised by this Kim. Mancini had refused to be. The stakes were too high now. Caesars had just constructed a 10,000-seat outdoor arena in anticipation of the event. The house of Mancini had grown in stature since the time his father was fighting at Broadway Arena. Now Boom Boom was right under Sinatra on the marquee outside Caesars.
“How you feeling, champ?” asked Sinatra, who invited Ray to his set after the fight.
Thank you, said Ray, feel good.
“I’ve been following you,” said Frank. “You’re making us real proud.”
AT THE OPENING BELL, Duk-koo came across the ring and hit Ray flush on the chin with a straight left. Then, some seconds later, another left to the heart.
The template was established in that first round. The fighters would stand toe to toe, their heads perilously close. It was southpaw against converted southpaw. Each man was listed at 5 feet 6 inches with a reach of 65 inches. Kim weighed in at 134 1/4, a half-pound lighter than Ray. But more than that, the fighters seemed united in their willingness to give and receive pain.
“I knew I’d have to eat a few,” Ray says.
A furious exchange near the end of the third round — Kim connecting with looping right hooks, then Mancini inflicting a series of body shots — concluded with the Korean pushing Ray back, as if the champion were a little kid. Kim raised his arms and pumped his fists. He had taken Mancini’s best shots.
A lesser fighter, a bully, would have folded right then. Instead, Mancini trudged back to his corner, clearly the more wounded man. The cut man, Paul Percifield, went to work on the left ear, which was split open and spouting blood. Less easily treated was Ray’s left hand. After throwing a left hook that bounced off the top of Duk-koo’s head, it was swollen and throbbing with pain.
The longer it went, this accrual of stubborn brutalities, the more it seemed a homage to Mancini’s father, the original Boom Boom. Waiting on the bell for the sixth, Gil Clancy felt uneasy. Clancy, one of two CBS analysts, had been in the corner March 24, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, when his fighter, the welterweight Emile Griffith, beat Benny “Kid” Paret into a fatal coma. Now the former trainer spoke in an ominous aside to his fellow broadcasters, Tim Ryan and Ray Leonard. “Something’s going to happen in this fight,” Clancy said quietly. “Either one guy’s gonna get busted up, or nail the other guy very badly.”
The fight settled into a rhythm. Ray would win the first part of a round, then, when it seemed against all probability, Duk-koo would answer with shots to the belly and straight lefts, one of which, at the end of the eighth, snapped back Ray’s head. They would breathe and bleed and lean on each other, achieving a state of violent intimacy that, looking back, seems almost fraternal.
“I knew him better than his mother,” Ray says.
By the 11th, it seemed as if each fighter was wearing a sickly bluish mask. Finally, in the 12th, Ray shot an uppercut to the heart that caused Duk-koo’s left knee to touch the canvas. It might have been ruled a knockdown if Duk-koo had not regained his footing so quickly. By now, he was clearly the more fatigued fighter, as tired as he was suddenly admired. Fans rose in appreciation after the 12th.
The next round began with Ray delivering 44 consecutive punches, an onslaught that slowed only when Duk-koo found enough of his opponent to grab. Then, after breaking free of that grasp, Ray got off 17 more, most of them hooks to the body. Seventy-nine seconds of the 13th round would elapse before Duk-koo threw his first punch.
There was a left, followed by a series of belly shots.
“Look at him punch back!” Ryan exclaimed.
The pummeling, with Mancini on the receiving end of most of it, continued until the bell.
Between rounds, as the fighters accepted their mouthpieces, Ryan reminded his audience whom they were watching. “This is the challenger, Duk-koo Kim,” he said. “You may not have heard of him before. You will remember him today.”
Again, Ray ran across the ring. But this time, he stepped right and stunned Duk-koo with a left hook. Then: a clear shot, a straight right into Duk-koo’s face. The challenger fell as if blown back by an explosion — head, torso, hips, then finally the limbs. The back of his head came to rest briefly on the ring apron. Then Duk-koo managed to turn himself over and grab the ropes, scaling the lower rungs as if they were a mast of a ship, finally pulling himself up.
“One of the greatest physical feats I had ever witnessed,” Wiley would recall.
Once upright, Duk-koo fell back against the ropes. The referee, Richard Green, wasted no time taking him into his arms. Nineteen seconds into the 14th round, the fight was over.
Ray Mancini dropped Duk-koo Kim with a vicious left-right combination seconds into the 14th round. Kim, nearly unconscious, struggled to his feet before the referee, Richard Green, stopped the fight.
Six thousand miles away, on the outskirts of Seoul, Young-mi was at a friend’s house. Finally, when the suspense became unbearable, she asked her to turn on the television.
No, the friend told Young-mi, the television isn’t working.
RAY’S CONVALESCENCE began back at his suite. His sister held ice bags to his left hand, his left ear and his left eye, now closed. His still weeping mother tended to the right hand and right eye.
“Don’t cry, Ma,” Ray said. “We won.”
Considering what he had just endured, Ray was feeling pretty good, even elated. It had been the most hard-fought and dramatic victory of his career. But as the euphoria dissipated, his body became a feverish mass of hurt, with bruises of every shade from mauve to lilac to violet to plum. He slept briefly before the strangely somber visitors began arriving in his suite.
“Look at me,” he told Father Tim O’Neill, who had taught him at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown. “I don’t think it’s worth it.”
“Ray,” Father O’Neill said, “the kid’s in bad shape.”
Upon his arrival at Desert Springs Hospital, Duk-koo was given a CT scan revealing a subdural hematoma — a blood clot — on the right side of the brain. Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, the neurosurgeon who reported to the ER, saw from the scan that most of the blood had settled in the parietal lobe. He estimated its volume to be 100cc.
“Enough to fill between three and four one-ounce shot glasses,” he says.
Later that night, Sinatra introduced Ray to the audience at the Circus Maximus Showroom.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Frank began, “this afternoon I saw the greatest fight I’ve ever seen. ... And here he is with us, my friend, the lightweight champeen of the world, Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.”
That’s how Ray would recall it, word for word. But as the spotlight found him in the audience, he felt like a perpetrator. As he stood to wave, Ray could feel the weight of his own counterfeit smile.
Two and a half hours on the operating table would not save Duk-koo Kim. Death was inevitable; the body would go the way of his brain.
The next morning, in an interview with The New York Times, Ray said: “It was a terrific fight and I saved my title, but what am I, a hero? Who’s to say it couldn’t be me? And yet, how can I say, ‘It was better him than me?’ ”
Father O’Neill presided over a 10 a.m. Mass at a ballroom in the Tropicana hotel. Ray, his left hand bandaged, bowed his head as Father O’Neill asked everyone to pray for Duk-koo Kim.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name ....
By now, it was Monday in Seoul, and Young-mi had been apprised of her fiancé’s condition. “I thought the sky fell down on me,” she says.
ON JAN. 13, 1983, exactly two months after the Kim fight, at a news conference announcing his return to the ring, Ray proclaimed himself healed: “I have no mental blocks ... I have buried the memory of all that.”
As concerned as he was with Ray’s psychiatric state, his manager, Dave Wolf, and the promoter Bob Arum had to restore his commercial appeal, too. By now, CBS was out. Kim’s death had incited a national debate on the abolition of boxing, and the Tiffany network had been stung by the criticism. “The perception was that they had put on a mismatch and gotten a guy killed,” Arum says. “They were out of the Ray Mancini business.”
Hence, Mancini’s next bout, against an obscure English fighter, went to NBC, which would televise it live from the Palazzo Dello Sport in St. Vincent, Italy.
A week before the fight, Duk-koo’s mother, Sun-nyo Yang, took her life. She drank a bottle of pesticide. The real cause of death, however, unmentioned in any autopsy, was insurmountable grief and shame.
Within hours, reporters descended on the Grand Hotel Billia. Though Ray declined to speak about the suicide, the press agent Irving Rudd issued a brief statement expressing his “deepest sympathies and profound sorrow.”
Italy’s national sports papers, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, claimed Ray was too grief-stricken to eat. They said he cloistered himself in his hotel room and prayed. They invented quotes from him, saying he would travel to Korea as soon as possible and pray at the graves of Duk-koo and Sun-nyo.
“One paper said I was so distraught I went to a local cemetery and prayed over a grave because I was thinking of Kim,” Ray says. “Absolute lie. They didn’t care. They just made it up.”
Finally, Ray confronted a reporter who had been friendly upon his arrival. “Giovanni,” he asked, “why did you do this?” “Ray, you must understand,” he said. “We are journalists. It makes a good story.”
Chuck Fagan, who was part of Mancini’s team, says: “That’s all they wanted to talk about. Kim, Kim, Kim.”
“It wouldn’t go away,” says Tank DiCioccio, the cornerman.
And Ray was just beginning to understand that it probably never would.
TWENTY YEARS LATER, they were still asking him.
“What’s it like?”
Every once in a while, they’d sidle up to him: at a bar, a country club, an autograph show. Ray never could decide what was worse: the question itself, or the smiling presumption with which it was asked.
“I mean, with your hands?”
Ray would break out the old ring stare. But that didn’t always work. The drunks especially, they had a hard time taking a hint.
“What’s it like to kill a guy?”
At that point, Ray usually chuckled in disbelief. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Yes. You are.”
The questions that strangers would ask were not asked at home. The subject was not brought up.
“We really didn’t talk much about it,” says Carmen, then Ray’s wife. “It was something that was there. We knew it, and we knew we’d have to find a way to explain it to the kids.”
Nina was at a third-grade basketball practice when a boy told her that her father had killed a man.
“That’s not true,” Nina said. “You should watch your mouth.”
Carmen and Ray hadn’t planned on explaining it this soon. Nina was 8 that day, when she came home crying. Ray calmed her down, and told her to have a seat on the couch. Then, not knowing what else to do, he put a tape of the Kim fight into the VCR.
She was brave to watch as she did, without tears.
“You see?” Carmen said. “It was an accident.”
“You didn’t mean to do that, Popi,” Nina said. “It was just something that happened.”
Something that happened.
“There have been times that Kim came to me in my dreams,” Ray says. “I can’t always remember what was said or what was done ... I don’t know if I apologize to him or we just kind of looked at each other ... In one of the dreams, I remember, we shook hands, embraced and he left. It was like, no words ... I don’t know if it was me doing it for myself, thinking about him so much that he finally came to me ... or if in actuality he somehow did come to me and put it to rest.”
Psychology or theology? Did it matter? As Father O’Neill once said, just be.
JUNE 23, 2011. Oblivious to the suburban serenade — chirping birds, a gentle wind rustling through the azaleas, the sound of children playing — Ray sits grim-faced and nervous on his stoop. Finally, he snaps to attention as the white Escalade comes into view.
The young man who emerges from the Cadillac is nattily attired: light blue sports jacket, silk pocket square, button-down shirt and khakis. At 29, Jiwan remains slender, his face still smooth and boyish. Those same features had troubled him as a child. Jiwan would turn to his mother and ask, “Why is my nose flat and not as high as yours?”
Because you’re Duk-koo Kim’s son, she would think.
Now the ex-fighter and the fighter’s son exchange bows and a careful hug. “I wanted to meet you, and I’m very happy that you wanted to meet me,” says Ray, then, pausing, concedes, “I don’t know exactly what to say.”
“O.K.,” says Jiwan. “I introduce my mother?”
Young-mi is flattered by the passing years. With her hair up, a black cardigan with a print blouse, she’s still dark-haired and glowing even after the 12-hour flight.
Ray bows again. “I hope this does for you what it does for me,” he says, formally. “I can finally rest easy.”
“You’re happy?” Jiwan asks. “You can be.”
Born seven months after his father’s death, Jiwan always knew he was the son of a fighter. His grandfather had shown him a couple of newspaper clippings. But that didn’t ease the boy’s envy or his pain. Jiwan’s friends all had fathers. What about him?
“Where is my father?” he would ask, usually before falling asleep next to his mother.
“He is in America,” she would say. “Making money.”
“When is he coming home to bring me toys and gifts?”
Jiwan was 9 when he overheard a friend’s mother saying that he had no father. That night, Young-mi told him the truth, which he kept to himself. “I did not think that I should talk about it so lightly,” Jiwan explains.
It hurt enough to have only a mother. But there was also the shame that followed Duk-koo’s death: his grandmother’s suicide and the portrayal of Young-mi as hoarding the insurance money. Besides, soon enough, the boy would have a stepfather with a factory job who took him to amusement parks.
“He treated me extremely well,” Jiwan says.
As a teenager, Jiwan would pore over his father’s journal. “I almost thought that I had written it myself,” he says. “It reflects almost the same thoughts that I had, and it made me believe that if I were in his place, fighting that fight, I, too, would not have stepped back.”
That’s not to say Jiwan was without regret. The warrior’s code — that admonition never to retreat — was something he regarded with ambivalence. Truth was, he wished his father had been less valorous.
“I wish he stepped back,” Jiwan says. “I know how difficult it was for my mother.”
When he was 24, a junior in college and already finished with his compulsory military service, Jiwan was given a DVD of his father’s fight with Mancini. He had no intention of watching it. He’d seen enough fragments of the fight (though not the final, fatal ones) on YouTube. Watching his father die wasn’t his idea of closure.
Finally, in July 2010, Jiwan and Young-mi consented to be interviewed for Mancini’s biography. It was difficult to reconcile the son of a dirt-poor fighter with the man Jiwan had become: studious, bespectacled, a second-year dental student in a polo shirt. Toward the end of the second session, Jiwan expressed interest in meeting Ray. “If he still happens to feel guilty about the fight of the past, if it still upsets him and makes him feel insecure, he no longer has to think that way,” Jiwan said. “To his sons and daughter, I would say ... I am sorry that you had to suffer. Your father is a good man and you do not need to feel pain because of the hurtful things that people say.”
The following June, mother and son arrived in Los Angeles with a camera crew filming a documentary based on the biography.
The visit begins with Mancini showing the photographs on his mantel: Ray with his kids, Ray with Ronald Reagan, Ray with Joe DiMaggio, and of course, the picture of his father — eye swollen shut, dried blood on his lips — after defeating Billy Marquart in 1941.
“To me,” Ray explains, “he’s beautiful.”
“Looks like you,” Jiwan says.
“After the fight with your father, yes.”
Now Young-mi produces a sheaf of snapshots from her purse, moving back in time: Jiwan in his army uniform, smiling in his school blazer, a boy and his mother at a picnic, Jiwan as a plump baby, then the engagement ceremony that preceded his birth. The beaming groom and his resplendent bride sit before a great banquet table. Young-mi wears a spray of flowers in her hair, her mother-in-law, in a white silk robe, at her side.
“Your father’s a good dresser,” Ray says.
“How do you feel?” Jiwan asks, haltingly.
Ray looks him up and down, this young man with the silk pocket square. His own boys are in shorts and T-shirts. “You did well for yourself,” he says.
The Mancini children join them for dinner. Nina is considering a career in restaurant management. The coming school year will see Leonardo enroll at Santa Barbara Community College and Ray-Ray make varsity basketball as a high school sophomore. They dine al fresco, the table set with bottles of Southpaw.
“That’s my wine,” Ray says proudly, recommending the linguine mare e monti with baby lobster.
“I love pasta,” Jiwan says.
Soon, Ray raises his glass. “I felt guilty about what happened for a long time,” he says. “I felt guilty because of your mother. I felt guilty that you never met your father.”
Young-mi dabs at her tears, but the confession continues even after the food arrives. “I didn’t know they carried him out on a stretcher,” Ray says. “It was a great fight, but after that there was nothing good about it. ... I had no love for it anymore. I was already looking for a way out.”
“It was better,” Jiwan says. “For your health.”
Jiwan has come with a confession of his own: before arriving in Los Angeles, he had finally watched the DVD. “Now I can tell you that when I saw the fight the first time I felt some hatred to you.”
But that, too, has passed.
“I think it was not your fault,” he says. “You deserve. Maybe now your family will be more happy.”
Next year, that long-awaited time for gifts, has finally arrived. And it’s the children who bear them.
Ray lifts his glass a final time.
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for coming to America.”
Mark Kriegel is the author of “The Good Son,” from which this article is adapted. It will be published by Free Press on Tuesday.
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